Western Kansas gem
While many rural communities - especially across Western Kansas are just trying to find a way to survive, Scott City has set itself apart in terms of population and economic growth.
That hasn’t gone unnoticed in Topeka as Secretary of Commerce David Toland spent three hours in Scott City on Monday morning as part of a brief area tour.
The swing through Southwest Kansas was the first in a series of statewide tours planned this summer by Toland and his staff.eir money’s worth.”
“We want to not only talk about the importance of the Department of Commerce serving the entire state, but also show our commitment to that by going throughout the state and hearing Western Kansas gem Earl Roemer (left), president and founder of NuLife Market, and Kansas Secretary of Commerce David Toland share a laugh while taking a tour of the grain sorghum development site in Scott City. (Record Photo) from people the things they’re doing well and areas where the state can assist,” said Toland.
He was able to see first-hand what Scott City is doing well during visits to NuLife Market, Scott Community High School and the Scott County Hospital.
The latter two stops were an opportunity for local officials to demonstrate part of the $100 million investment that the community has made over the last 15 years.
“We want to show the state that when you make an investment in Scott City it’s a good investment,” said Scott County Development Director Katie Eisenhour. “We’ve invested in ourselves first.”
State Rep. Don Hineman (R-Dighton), who accompanied the tour countered the argument by some that Scott City’s bond issues and the resulting mill levy is a barrier to attracting families and businesses.
“I believe it reflects that this is a progressive community that’s willing to invest in the long-term,” he emphasized.
That message wasn’t lost on some of those who were part of the Secretary’s entourage.
“Scott City stands out as a gem in Western Kansas,” noted Dena Sattler, formerly of Garden City, who is director of marketing and communications with the Department of Commerce.
“The people of this community should be proud of what they’re accomplishing. This is an example of what happens when a community is willing to invest in itself.”
Housing Issue Statewide Toland acknowledged that a shortage of affordable housing is a statewide issue. He said the need exists in all cost ranges, particularly in rural communities.
“I’ve been very impressed to see significant residential development happening,” said Toland after taking a brief drive through the Eastridge Addition.
“For a town of this size, it’s significant. Is it enough? No. You’re probably about 50 units short of where you need to be,” he said. “But compared to most towns of this size, and I come from a town of about this size, you’re doing a lot better than most across Kansas.”
Toland says there are programs available through the Kansas Housing Resources Corporation, most of which are designed to assist with moderate income housing development. However, because of budget shortfalls those programs haven’t been funded adequately.
For example, the total allocation for the Moderate Income Housing (MIH) program this year is $2 million, which Toland notes is a “drop in the bucket” when spread across the entire state.
“That’s not even close to adequate,” he said. He’s optimistic that with state revenue stabilizing it will be possible to invest more in MIH and similar programs.
The MIH program, however, only defrays some of the homeowner’s cost for infrastructure, such as street and curb/ gutter. Scott City has been awarded a MIH grant to assist new housing projects on Chestnut Street in the Eastridge Addition. Toland said the MIH program, and similar initiatives, are only one piece of the puzzle that can help more people become homeowners.
“You need the infrastructure side of it, you need developers, you need to have lenders and then you need to have folks who can walk people through the process on everything from credit counseling, to downpayment assistance and more,” said Toland. “There’s not one silver bullet that fixes housing problems.”
He referred to housing as a chicken and egg problem.
Developers will claim the jobs and people have to exist before they’re willing to build homes and at the same time businesses say they can’t expand until housing is available.
“The fact is, communities will have to take some risks as it relates to housing. They will have to get creative about infrastructure and get creative about getting some units going. Once you can prime that pump and get things moving, the market will begin to move on its own,” he predicts.
“Getting it off square one is the hardest part.”
Workforce Shortage Toland says the state is aware of forecasts which indicate a huge population decline across Western Kansas over the next 25 years.
“There are 50,000 jobs across the state that are unfilled right now. We have an issue with population loss, particularly in rural areas and that’s affecting businesses in a profound way,” he says. “We’ve got to come up with strategies to retain the people we have and recruit folks who have left these communities and might be interested in coming back.”
Toland says he’s not only referring to young families, but retirees who may find that “returning to their hometown makes a lot of sense.”
“We need a strategy from state government to support local communities in doing that,” he says.
He also recommends the state could focus on workforce recruitment in key areas of the country which have experienced major job losses and the shutdown of factories.
“We need to look at Rust Belt states which have lost manufacturing jobs and where people are still there seeking work,” he says. “I’d like to see the state target people in those areas and communicate the quality of life and great opportunities we have available in Kansas.”
The first stop of the morning tour was NuLife Market which has developed a huge niche market for grain sorghum in food products.
In the eight years since NuLife Market opened its doors, CEO and founder Earl Roemer says they’ve expanded from a single employee to 24 at the Scott City location.
“With the number of products in the pipeline, we expect that growth to continue,” he says.
By establishing a niche market, Roemer says the company has been able to add value, and profitability, for farmers by paying a premium for sorghum grain.
“We’ve created an opportunity for producers to earn greater income, which is especially critical now when times are tough and many are struggling with cash flow. This is a benefit not only to our local farmers, but to the Western Kansas economy,” Roemer pointed out.
There are currently over 2,000 food products today which contain grain sorghum, which stands in sharp contrast to “about four when I started this business,” according to Roemer. However, he said the state could assist by helping develop international markets.
“The domestic market isn’t great enough for all the sorghum that’s produced,” said Roemer. “We need international markets.”
Hineman agreed that more needs to be done to develop a market for grain sorghum as he waits for the weather to clear so he can plant about 2,000 acres of the crop on his Lane County farming operation.
Sorghum, said Hineman, is currently bringing about 50 cents per bushel less in the marketplace than corn. At the same time, the cost of seed for grain sorghum is about $8 per acre, compared to $40 per acre for corn.
“We want to continue raising sorghum, but we need the market,” he emphasizes.
But those markets are difficult to establish because of existing barriers affecting transportation and exports.
Toland said that Gov. Laura Kelly’s administration is placing a priority on international trade and “rebuilding what we once had.”
Bringing Back Youth Supt. Jamie Rumford gave an overview of the $25 million bond issue that’s paying for a major upgrade of USD 466 facilities. He further noted that the district is having success in hiring former graduates.
“They had success while living in Scott City and they want their kids to experience the same things they did,” he said.
Rumford said that of seven staff members hired to teach in the district for the next school year, four are SCHS graduates and two others have roots in Western Kansas.
Job opportunities are also being created at the Scott County Hospital which has become one of the communities major employers. Hospital CEO Mark Burnett said the healthcare center currently employs about 245 people with an annual payroll of about $13 million.
“More people are viewing healthcare as a consumer item now than at any other time. It’s because they are spending more of their personal dollars due to high insurance deductibles and insurance co-pays,” Burnett said. “That’s why it’s critical for us to provide an environment that appeals to them and great employees who will make them feel they’re getting their money’s worth.”